Films about the rampages of serial killers seem to have a tendency towards aggrandising their actions (Monster, Hannibal), exaggerating their insanity for cheap thrills (Psycho) or elevating their victims or investigators into pillars of unsullied good to compensate (Se7en). With his debut feature The Chaser, South Korean directorial wunderkind Na Hong-jin has done none of the above, producing a film that bucks convention by being as much an excoriating social commentary as it is a gripping thriller.
Hong-jin was provoked to write the screenplay in response to the killings, capture and trial of Yoo Young-cheol, who during 2003-04 killed up to 21 people, mostly wealthy middle-aged people and sex workers, and who admitted to often cannibalising parts of the bodies. Young-cheol was eventually apprehended after police received assistance from a pimp who noticed that the girls in his stable vanished after receiving calls from Young-cheols number.
Hong-jins fictionalised take on the case replicates this basic scenario, centring on the efforts of the casually brutal pimp Jung-ho (Kim Yoon-suk) to track down missing prostitute Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee). Times are rough for Jung-ho, a former detective dismissed from the force for corruption. Several of his girls have gone missing he assumes that theyve run away, until he notices that they all disappeared after responding to calls from the same number. Believing that the mysterious caller may be selling them on, he sets a trap, sending Mi-jin straight into the clutches of killer Young-min (Ha Jung-woo).
From there on in, Hong-jin proceeds to thwart generic conventions in both brilliant and maddening ways. The smilingly inoffensive Young-min is quickly shown to be a callous monster, bludgeoning to death a pair of door-knocking church-goers whose interruption results in Mi-jins murder being botched. Leaving the scene, he crashes into Jung-ho who, rapidly realising that the blood-flecked young man is his mysterious caller, catches him and delivers him to the police after a frenetic (and fantastically shot) chase through the back alleys of the slums.
Case closed. Or not. Stretching out to a weighty 123 minutes, The Chaser begins to feel drawn-out after a while. However, this is what allows Hong-jin to land his heaviest blows against the myriad failures of Seouls police. Seeing in Jung-hos capture of Young-min an opportunity to redeem an earlier failure to protect the citys mayor from protestors, the police are presented as a bungling, petty and corrupt rabble, hamstrung by their superiors political machinations, factional squabbling and their own simple ineptitude. Their handling of the case is infuriating, with ultimately tragic consequences.
Hong-jin purposely leaves the question of Young-mins motives open, while dropping hints of possible child-hood trauma or sexual impotence being potential factors. In the Young-cheol case, the killer was openly motivated by a deeply-embedded class-hatred toward the wealthy, stemming from extreme childhood poverty, as well as disgust at the excesses of South-Koreas sex industry (which apparently accounts for 4.1% of the national GDP).
While these issues arent woven directly into the story, to an extent theres no need, conditions of poverty and dilapidated hopelessness of urban Seoul being imprinted on every shot, neon crosses glowing balefully above the decaying warren of the slums. Indeed, through Hong-jins lens, modern Seoul appears just as irrevocably corrupt as any more overtly dystopian cinematic metropolis.
As a thriller, The Chaser is great, generating an almost unendurable sense of dull horror through the failure of the forces of good to prevent calamity. However, although Jung-hos gradual transformation from hopelessly self-centred thug to bleary-eyed avenging angel does provide some sense of hope, many may find the film too overwhelmingly nihilistic to bear. Hong-jin has stated that he wanted people to feel pain or guilt after watching the film. In this he succeeds with flying colours.